Ryan Kankowski’s performance against the Lions underlined his class and was also reassuring from a Springbok perspective.
After a superb 2008, the Sharks’ No 8 was decidedly ordinary in the 2009 Super 14. However, his Man of the Match display against the Lions in the Sharks’ 30-19 suggested that he has moved towards rediscovering his best form.
To make an absolute judgement of Kankowski, particularly against a relatively weak side like the Lions, would be premature. But given that he has had limited game time in the last three months because of Pierre Spies’ domination of the berth for the Springboks, the performance was very encouraging, particularly if you are Springbok head coach Peter de Villiers.
If there was a concern that, should Spies be injured prior to the Springboks’ next Test against Australia on 29 August, Kankowski would be undercooked and take some time to settle – not the ideal scenario for a side chasing the Tri-Nations title – those fears were allayed at Ellis Park. If that’s the performance of an undercooked man, the prospect of seeing Kankowski at the top of his game is an enticing one.
Admittedly the loose nature of the match suited his strengths, but he could only play what was in front of him, and did so brilliantly, scoring a superb try and creating one for Craig Burden.
Spies and Kankowski are cut from the same cloth in terms of their strengths, and indeed weakness, and therefore will be a like for like replacement if he is required.
Spies’s potency with ball in hand hasn’t been fully utilised because of the Springboks’ preferred and highly effective (to date) kick-chase approach. However, to say he has been a non-factor in recent Test matches would be inaccurate.
Spies has carried strongly at times and has more often than not committed a number of defenders, freeing up space for those around him. Given their similarities, there is therefore no reason to believe Kankowski will struggle in a fairly restrictive (in the context of his strengths) game plan.
Kankowski hasn’t been able to crack the Springboks’ match 22 regularly, with De Villiers preferring to include three backline players on the substitute bench. With flank Schalk Burger’s return from suspension, it won’t get any easier for Kankowski to break into the squad.
De Villiers has kept his cards close on how, or indeed if, Burger will be thrust straight back into the starting line-up. He has a arduous selection task given Heinrich Brussow’s excellence in Burger’s absence. If faith is maintained in Brussow, Burger is sure to be included on the bench, probably in place of Danie Rossouw. Nothing changes if Burger is tossed the No 6 shirt, with Brussow then likely to replace the Bulls man.
The only route into the squad for Kankowski seems to be if De Villiers opts to go for a five-two bench split, with scrumhalf Ricky Januarie dropping out of the squad. His inclusion is slightly perplexing given that Ruan Pienaar can cover scrumhalf and flyhalf, but Januarie is one of the coach’s favourites and is unlikely to be axed.
It seems that Kankowski will have to be content to watch from the stands for the foreseeable future. It’s a pity for a player of his calibre, but one has to be mindful that he is just 23-years-old and is still some way from the ceiling of his potential.
Kankowski’s chance will come, and even though that time may be some way off yet, his performance against the Lions was a timely reminder that the Springboks have a gem in reserve.
By Ryan Vrede